Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ambassador Robert Gosende: Presentation in Warsaw on "The Conduct of Foreign Relations in the Digital Age" (June 13, 2014)

Ambassador Robert R. Gosende: Presentation* to graduate students at Warsaw’s Higher School (University) of Social Psychology in Warsaw, Friday, June 13, 2014:

The Conduct of Foreign Relations in the Digital Age: What are the new Challenges and Opportunities? What has changed from the Past? What risks being lost by abandoning past practices?


I first of all want to thank Rektor Eliasz, Vice Rektor Gardocka, and Dean Grzelonski for inviting me to come to Warsaw to be with you this week. It is a great honor and pleasure for my wife and me to be here in Poland. We spent over four years of our life serving at the U.S. Embassy here in Warsaw when from 1974 to 1978. I was our Embassy’s Cultural Attaché. I regard that assignment as the most personally satisfying of my career. Poland was then, and I believe still is now, a wonderful place to serve especially to work on cultural and educational relations. Your people have such reverence for education and culture that anyone working on that here can show up anywhere in the country and be welcomed with open arms. That even extended into Rembertow in Praga, at Warsaw Pact headquarters, when the Chief Librarian/Archivist of the Polish Army, I believe that his name was Skubiszewski, welcomed my assistant and myself to his office to discuss an application we had from a retired U.S. Army General to come to Warsaw on a Fulbright Award to complete his research on a book he was writing on the Post World War II history of the Polish Army. The PZPR was still in power then, in 1977, but culture (history) trumped politics insofar as Gen. Skubiszewski was concerned.

I am a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. My specialization in the diplomatic service was international educational and cultural relations. During my years as a diplomat these activities were administered in a separate agency, the United states Information Agency (USIA), which worked in close coordination with the U.S. Department of State, my country’s Foreign Ministry. USIA was established in 1953 as an Agency separate from the State Department because our government then believed that international educational, cultural and information activities would be best served if they were administered separately from our Foreign Ministry, the Department of State. When asked whether or not these activities should be combined into the State Department, one former US Ambassador to Poland who had served in both State and USIA said that he thought not since in his words, “the Department of State has not the slightest interest in educational, cultural, and information activities. It is interested in the conduct of foreign relations. Educational, cultural, and information activities would not prosper in the Department of State.”

My wife and I served in Uganda, Libya, and Somalia (twice), South Africa (three times), Poland and the Russian Federation from 1964 until 1998. So we have had ring side seats at some of the most important events in some of the most important places over these years. We served in each of these places on assignment from USIA though I was on detail from USIA as President Clinton’s Special Envoy for Somalia in 1992-1993 and as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs supervising election assistance to the Government of South Africa in the run-up to the Aril 1994 election that brought Nelson Mandela to that country’s Presidency. We carried on with work in international education at the State University of New York (SUNY) where I was Associate Vice Chancellor and the SUNY Central Administration’s Senior International Officer for SUNY’s 64 campus system. So you will see that I place high priority on international educational and cultural relations.

I believe that there is urgent need now for such activities to be expanded. I believe that it is especially important that colleges and universities seek to find ways in which they can involve their students in such activities. I believe that every student should at some point in his or her undergraduate career study beyond the borders of their country. I believe that language study is of major importance in today’s world. There is probably no better way to come to know a country and its people than by studying its language. I believe that in today’s interconnected world people need to have international understanding that will allow them to make rational decision concerning their own future and the future of their country.

So what about the importance of international educational and cultural relations? To illustrate what this meant, and still means, I will speak for just a bit on what went on in Poland between 1974 and 1978, when I was the US Cultural Attaché here. 1976 was the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. so in the immediate run-up to that event and its celebration in Poland very substantial resources were sent aside for activities in Poland. The U.S. established what was called the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA). Our country early on decided that activities in Poland should be a major part of how our 200th anniversary would be celebrated abroad. One might say that this decision was taken because Poland was then under communist domination but in my opinion even if communism had already disappeared Poland would have been major actor because of the major role that your country played in our revolution. We all remember Kosciuszko and Pulawski. Today we find those Polish and American heroes commemorated in the names of town and cities across the entire U.S. 1976 was the actual anniversary so many celebratory activities took place in that year. The US presented a major exhibition of art and artifacts in an exhibition entitled the World of Franklin and Jefferson which encompassed the some 125 years between the birth of Benjamin Franklin in 1707 to the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1824. Le Monde reviewed the exhibit saying, “This is a reconstruction of 125 crucial years in the history of liberty. It is literally an exemplary exhibition, not only for its richness and groupings of its contents, but also by its truly revolutionary presentation….The result is a feast. Nothing could be more fun that this sparkling collection….a living entity for those who do not come for a history lesson but more for impressions. Charles Eames has recreated the atmosphere of an era, the moral and social climate of the birth of a nation, forever marked by the principles on which it was founded.”

The World of Franklin and Jefferson was presented at the Petit Palais in Paris, here in Warsaw at your National Museum, at the British Museum in London and later in Mexico City as well as in cities across the U.S. Displayed in the exhibition were all manner of documents and artifacts from this important period in American history which coincided with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Items stretched from musical instruments to a huge stuffed American Buffalo which was so large that a hole had to be cut into you National Museum to get it inside. So we were working closely with Prof. Stanislaw Lorentz, then the Director of your National Museum. The text for the exhibition, all exactingly translated into Polish, was over 35,000 words in length. I asked Prof. Lorentz if we needed to submit the text to the PZPR government for its approval. He responded that we would have to do so but that they would not change one word. He was correct. Nothing was changed.

Charles Eames, the pre-eminent American industrial designer of his era in the U.S., hung slogans from the American Revolution as horizontal banners from the ceiling of the National Museum including Patrick Henry’s famous “Given me liberty or give me death!”, Nathan Hale’s, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”, and Christopher Gadsden’s banner, “Don’t tread on me” depicting a coiled rattle snake. Some 53,000 visitors lined up in the cold and rain at the entrance to the National Museum during the seven week showing in the autumn of 1976 to view this presentation. We saw right away that on noticing the slogans people began to jot them down on whatever they had with them so we printed them and handed them out at the entrance.

As you know Prof. Lorentz was a hero during Poland’s struggle for independence during the communist era and before that during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He was the only person in the Polish Government during the 1970’s that held the same position then that he had occupied in 1939 – Director of your National Museum. To coincide with the presentation of the World of Franklin and Jefferson, Prof. Lorentz and his staff prepared a companion exhibition of artifacts held in Poland which displayed items and documents of historic significance for the period – included were correspondence between George Washington and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. It is interesting to note that Kosciuszko observed to Washington that he thought that our revolution was incomplete in that it did not include freedom for people of color. Kosciuszko accurately predicted that this would lead to trouble for the nascent US which it of course did some 85 years later.

Following the World of Franklin and Jefferson we presented “Dwiescie lat malarstwa amerikanskiego,” Two Hundred Years of American Painting – a collection of 60 major works from museums across the US. This exhibition also appeared at your National Museum. Again, people were lined up in the November and December weather to get into the exhibition.

That year we also presented four performances of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta conducting, in Warsaw and Krakow. The final performance in Warsaw concluded with Mahler’s First Symphony – a work that Mehta is said to “own.” I was sitting next to Poland’s foremost music critic at the time, Jerzy Waldorf. I saw that he was crying as the performance ended and he said, “Do you why I am crying?” I said that I did not and he responded, “I have been coming to the Warsaw Philharmonia for forty-five years and I have never heard anything like that. I am crying because I know that I will never again hear anything like that!”

During the mid-1970’s we regularly presented American singers and conductors at the Teatr Wielki. We presented performances by the Juilliard String Quartet and helped to present young American pianists participating in the Warsaw International Piano Competition in 1975.

But our most important work during this period was in helping to establish direct academic relationships between over forty Polish and American universities. The perhaps most prestigious of these relationships was created in 1976, again our Bicentennial year, when supported a partnership between Warsaw University and Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University and Warsaw University agreed to the establishment of studies centers: an American Studies Center here in Warsaw and a Polish Studies Center in Bloomington. These centers have endured over the years assisting enormously in the preparation of scholars, experts, on each other’s countries. Graduate from these institutions and programs have gone on to distinguished careers in each country. One example of this is your Dean for Humanities here at SWPS, Prof. Bogdan Grzelonski. Prof. Grzelonski and I first met when he was a graduate student at the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. As you know he went on to become Poland’s first non-communist Ambassador to Canada and then returned to found a new college here in Poland before coming to you here in Warsaw. Also with us today in is Prof. Franciszek Lyra who was the first Fulbright Award recipient to travel to the U.S. for graduate study in 1959. Prof. Lyra completed his PhD in Linguistics at Indiana University in Bloomington and later did post-doctoral research at Harvard University. He is one of the foremost international scholars of America culture and literature.

But that is what used to happen. We did not realize this at the time but the 1970’s and perhaps 1980’s were that halcyon days of US involvement in international educational and cultural exchange. As you know, by the end of the 1980’s the communist order was coming apart with Poland playing a central role in this process. Poland led the way as we know in the dramatic changes that took place across Central Europe and also in the Soviet Union.

But to understand this story we need to focus a bit now on the impact that those changes had on the US. Finding resources for international educational and cultural exchanges was always a challenge. This was, as Harvard Prof. Joseph Nye says, the soft side of diplomacy. So the budget of the U.S. Information Agency never exceeded 1 billion dollars annually. But a fateful decision was taken in 1998 to abolish USIA. The theory was that now that the communist order had collapsed there had to be some kind of “peace dividend” and it was decided that abolishing USIA and folding its operations into the Department of state would provide that dividend. After all, we had won the Cold War!

The 2014 defense budget in the US is $615 billion. The international affairs budget, which provides funding for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development is $48 billion. There are currently approximately 1.4 men and women in our armed forces and another 1.1 million in our reserves and additional 718,000 civilian employees in our Department of Defense. The total number of employees in our Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps is 88,000. So we provide in funding more than 12 times the amount for military power as for diplomacy and development. In people the disproportion is 24 times. This is entirely disproportionate to allow for any measure of meaningful success in the future – and this future is yours.

Now what about the Digital Age and its impact on diplomacy? First of all, the rapid technological developments that have taken place over the past ten years, have overwhelmed many – yours truly included. But the potential they hold for enhancing the ability to communicate more easily across boundaries and cultures is immense. People coming into the diplomatic service now come in with these skills already on board. But there is a huge deficit here insofar as those who are already on board. A major training intervention is needed here but I have not seen this taking place. Some people have picked up skills in the use of social networks on their own but many others have not.

Innovation in technology has made it possible now for just about everyone to become a publisher – for everyone to communicate widely across the world. But in the discipline of diplomacy, and I am using the term discipline deliberately here, it is not appropriate for everyone in an Embassy or Foreign Ministry to go on line with his or her thoughts for the world to read. A goodly part of diplomacy is discipline. If you represent a government you have to adhere to what you know to be the policy of your government. If you cannot in good conscience do that then you have the obligation to resign if you want to speak out in opposition.

But there is another dimension here in terms of diplomatic practice. Even if you serve as an Ambassador in a country you may not want to be tweeting every night with your opposing views of what the country to which you are accredited is doing. That will certainly not win you friends in high places in the host government though it may give you a wide audience.

But even more challenging now with new technology is time management. Even in retirement I find myself sitting at a computer altogether too long each day. I somehow know that I need to get more information – to read more – but I do so at the expense of what I would call normal human interaction. As a supervisor in the Foreign Service of our country I used to say that people who spent more than half their time at their desks in their offices and not out meeting with people in their host country were failing at their jobs. The real value added that diplomats bring to the table is their deep knowledge of the people of the country in which they are serving. Such people need to know the history, culture religious background, social mores and traditions of the country in which they are working. Such knowledge cannot be learned on the net. It cannot be maintained on the net. It has to be learned by human interaction for which adequate time has to be set aside. Though I left the diplomatic service over a decade ago, I know that setting aside that time has become harder and harder thanks in no small measure to technological innovation in communications.

Some have mooted recently that traditional diplomacy and foreign ministries have become less important now because in most instances international relations are conducted by people of all stripes across whole countries. This is most certainly the case but governments will still need to call upon diplomats whether they are in foreign ministries or other ministries when there is business to be conducted. Technological innovation should now not be used as an excuse to reduce the funding for diplomacy. There is no technology dividend here.

In summary I would say that innovation has made it possible for almost everyone, a diplomat or someone in another position, to work almost all the time. As you know there is an expectation that you will be on line 24/7. The most serious challenge I see now in the digital age is time management. How do you manage to set aside the time to complete your most urgent tasks successfully? And for those of you either in the diplomatic service or in some other profession that entails communication across cultures, human interaction is mandatory for the understanding you need to be successful on behalf of your government or your business or your educational institution.

Many thanks for your attention and please let’s get on with the most important part of our time together today – your questions and comments.

*Posted here with the Ambassador's kind permission; Gosende image from

No comments: